Oh those memories! September was once a time to head to New Hampshire for Grayhounds, and sometime Wannabe Grayhounds. The Grayhounds are, as the jacket proudly states, a Masters Running Team.
September 2, 2001 offered a return to September glories in New Hampshire for certain hounds whose running experience is almost legendary (in our own minds). Who wouldn't aspire to a t-shirt worn by admiring fans attesting to his victories (moral and physical) as Gordon "Viking" Warnica has achieved on his 55 short years on this planet.
This year's "running" excursion to New Hampshire resembled a race primarily in its head start that was not called back.
The congregation gathered, fittingly on Sunday, in Goreham, having joined with thousands of other Americans, in the ritual of Labour Day Sales. Since this was an initiation of sorts, for this scribe, it was necessary to display a certain amount of bravado in the face of some of the local colour that Gordon "Viking" arranged for our group of four. He had located a Hiker's Hostel in Goreham for the four of us at one princely sum of $11.00 per night. Here we were introduced to hiking legend "Ox" who was in the final stages of organizing a Keg Party for "through hikers" at the Rattle River Shelter, and our chauffeur "Tiny", who would drive us to Pinkham Notch the following morning, refusing all efforts to compensate him.
"Ox's" impact on our group was the most immediate. As the last to bed of our group, I met Ox first, when he wandered past me while I watched the Red Sox and Yankees in the common room. He shortly returned after finding Viking, I'm-Selling-Halifax, and Goat asleep on the three other beds in the room at the end of the hall that he would now have to share. My bed was in a short hallway area where the others would pass through on those frequent nightly washroom visits.
"Ox" cordially explained that he was a snorer and had been known to drive people from his room. He wanted to know if I would trade beds. I looked him over circumspectly, concluded that he had already slept on those sheets, and reasonably concluded I would stick with my own clean, if well worn, linen. Besides how bad could "Ox" snore?
This was a portent of my capacity to underestimate things on this trip. When Ox wasn't sounding like a diesel truck being started all night long, he talked about his failed relationship with someone. I could hear this quite well from the next room, so I could relate to Viking's recollections of Ox's nightlong blathering the following morning. Viking seemed to think I might have saved the others some sleep if I had accepted Ox's offer to switch beds. The notion of what might have been on those sheets after Ox's ramblings about the failed relationship still frightens me, so no regrets here Viking, and besides Viking, I saved you from that midnight collision with a closed door on the way to the washroom. Ah, the abuse one take from fellow hikers.
Then there was the more effervescent "Tiny", our chauffeur, who regaled us with tales of alligators escaping from a touring circus to infest certain mountain lakes in the summer. Other than his hospitality, Tiny introduced our group of four to a continuing element of controversy. As is common with hikers, Tiny asked our trail names. "Tiny" had no problem with Viking, Goat and Scrounger, but when it came to I'm Selling Halifax, Tiny displayed an economy with words, and shortened this lengthy trail moniker to "Halifax". This, of course, loses any sense of meaning for those of us who live in that fair city. The rest of the trip was consumed by a recurring controversy over what should be Mark's shortened trail name.
Day one of hiking from Pinkham Notch to Imp shelter, over five 4000' peaks, saw conversation regularly come back to the topic of Mark's trail name. I am convinced this was a small element of escapism from the arduous task at hand. Malcolm named him Guzzler, because of his water consumption, but that quickly deteriorated into less complimentary versions around that same theme. Mark seemed to have some trouble with these less complimentary names, so the debate continued over what should be Mark's trail name.
Does anyone out there want to make a contribution?
I have to confess that this climb over the Wildcat and Carter Peaks was one of the toughest days I can remember, and that compares it to five marathons, and three ultra-marathons. I added to the difficulty by not wearing my new backpack properly, with the weight on my hips. I had it hanging off my shoulders, which resulted in my shoulders becoming extremely sore. I didn't realize until the following day that I had actually worn the skin off my right shoulder, and bruised my left.
By the time we reached the hut at Carter Notch, I was secretly thinking five miles isn't a bad first day in this terrain, but I was definitely in the minority. We were getting pushed along by younger trail toughened through, hikers, who said they were headed for the Keg Party at Rattle River, another five miles beyond the Imp Shelter that was our destination. On the vertical ascent of Carter Dome, we learned to be more specific in our questions. We spoke briefly with a young male hiker descending, and asked "how far to the summit"? He responded "another 1000 feet", after checking his handheld altimeter. You can't leave home without one now, but as we pushed on for another twenty minutes without finding the summit, we silently cursed this young man and his useless tool that doesn't measure distance.
It was in this stretch that I gained the reputation as the policeman of the water break. Every 20 minutes in the difficult sections sliding up to a half-hour and forty minutes in the easier terrain that we would encounter later in the week.
We found some easier going through the Zeta Pass, but we paid for that at dusk when we descended North Carter the last of the 4000 footers for this day. The book says the trail "makes a steep and rough descent". These words are hardly adequate. At the bottom, with darkness settling in, I was ready for improvising (no pun intended) a campsite, but Viking, Goat and What's-his-name insisted in pushing on. Soon those three had extracted their lights, while I discovered another fundamental truth. It is far better to keep pace with your friends in the dark than to take the time to get your light out of your pack and continue in lighted loneliness. The rest of the way to Imp Shelter I would periodically call out as we passed a level spot on the trail "that looked like a good one for camping, but I was ignored.
No more stops, just my curses as I stumbled on the trail in the dark, and even after Goat offered to have me walk ahead, where he felt he would be secure if I was to unexpectely discover any sudden dips in the trail. My spirit was finally lifted when Gordon spotted the sign for the Imp Shelter Spur - 0.2 miles to the left.
Many more stumbling steps, and what do I see - a sign saying caretaker that Viking and What's-his-name had already passed. I was so fearful they might have missed a sign of habitation and shelter I called after them. Apparently some others may have heard my joyful cry as well. "Frankly, I don't give a damn".
I was so exhausted I didn't have the energy to light my stove. I nibbled at raw carrots, an apple, bread and beef jerky, and managed to scrounge some pasta off of Mark, I mean What's-his-name.
A day I would like to forget. After a pleasant breakfast at the hut, and a brief 50 meter walk to a great look-off, we loaded up our packs and headed up Mount Moriah, the last of the New Hampshire 4000 footers. A half-hour later, my breakfast and I parted company, and the rest of the ascent of Moriah and the long sharp descent into Goreham was spent trying to sort out how much fluid I could keep down. This was made all the more devastating to my spirit as we met a succession of Southbound Through Hikers who had partied much of the night at the Keg Party in Rattle River. They were obviously handling their beer intake better than I could handle Instant Quaker Oatmeal.
Suffice it to say, I survived, got to Goreham, ate some greasy food, took a shower, got a bandage for my shoulder, ate more grease, and miraculously felt better.
Mahousac Notch to Speck Pond (highest lake in Maine)
From this pint on, I will only offer highlights and observations as others have covered this part in greater detail.
Goat took the time to show me how to put the weight of my pack on my hips while we waited for the shuttling of the cars to Grafton Notch where we would emerge the next day. I could feel the immediate improvement.
The Notch offered spectacular scenery as we climbed over rocks and under rocks, looking up at sheer cliff walls and views ahead out of the Notch. It requires patience and caution and a commitment to enjoy the views, something I almost forgot in the first two days.
Speck Pond Shelter was the coldest night of the trip, with gloves and tights carried for this one night. Sunset on the lakeshore was great, with some interesting chat with a couple, formerly of Maine, but now residents of Manchester, New Hampshire and veterans of the Kenduskeag Canoe Race.
After the climb to the tower on Old Speck Mountain, we began a gradual descent to Route 26 at Grafton Notch with the younger guys - Dipper and What's-his-name descending a little more rapidly to shuttle the cars.
Chimney Pond is definitely one of my favourite places in the World, so why not spend the afternoon by the pond soaking up sun and those great views up to the Peaks.
In a few private moments my thoughts wandered to my daughter, who is 13,000 miles away in Hong Kong. The last two times I had been to Chimney Pond was with her and her friend Shelly. Here's to new hikes we will do a World away from Chimney Pond!
This day provided the line of the trip, which of course was uttered by Greg Vail at the top of Saddle Trail after the steep gravelly ascent up to the plateau. While we are standing / sitting in the shelter, out of a raging wind waiting for Dipper and Imax to join us, Greg, feeling a little proud of his climb announced to all that he had trained all summer by "humping gravel". Then, in his mysterious way, he became silent, leaving us to speculate. "Is Gravel a pet name for someone"? Perhaps he has discovered from some secret research in the Department of Transportation that gravel spreads better when it is kept moist? With some trepidation, I find myself wondering what he might have meant?
As four of us pressed on to Russell Pond, the wildlife became more abundant. A young moose scampered away from us on the plateau as we left Davis Pond heading for Russell Pond. At Russell Pond I had one of my trip highlights. The others were in bed before dusk on a very warm evening. I was determined not to go to bed until dark, so I sat by the site's fire pit and read, only to be interrupted by a female deer that came as close as ten feet from me, and would stop and wiggle her tail each time Goat would snore. She apparently did not find either Goat's snoring or my presence upsetting. When some more raucous neighbours yelled something at a nearby campsite, the doe wiggled her tail one last time and disappeared into the trees.
Russell Pond to Roaring Brook, a relaxed four-hour hike with lots of water breaks and a refreshing wade across a river barefoot.
Drove back to Millinocket for an afternoon of football, showers and a motel bed. It is amazing how good a regular mattress feels after one, two or three days on one or two inches of air foam.